The Drama Review (April 13, 2018)

Dear drama observers,

Lately, there have been numerous examples of people in the news using their power positions for nefarious purposes. Some of these have been political figures, some religious. The lure of power is certainly not gender-confined but the specific cases to which I’m referring have all been men.

I’m reminded of Lord Acton’s famous quote, “Power tends to corrupt but absolute power corrupts absolutely.” I’m told, however, that Lord Acton didn’t simply mean that the more power one gains, the more corrupt one becomes. He was also saying that the corruption of the powerful eventually spreads to those who follow.

It’s troubling when powerful people abuse their power. But it’s excruciating to watch those close to the power become corrupted by it. People who should know better. People who’ve been lured by fool’s gold. Those who seek influence through power will eventually lose both power and influence.

I wrote something about this a year or so ago but I think it’s more relevant today than it was then.

Here it is:

Since the drama person lacks reason abilities, he resorts to his only relational alternative—drama.  You “get along” with a drama person only if you abide by the drama’s terms. You must be willing to acquiesce and, in effect, say, “OK, you’re right, I’m wrong,” and say it like you mean it.  That’s how drama people make relationships “work.”  For them, relational “success” is contingent upon drama participation.

But drama participation has corrosive effects on those coerced into participating, both on personal and collective levels.  In the up-close-and-personal realm, it diminishes you in significant ways.  It confuses you. It sickens you.  It exhausts you.  It messes with your brain.  It can affect your physical health. It can loosen your grasp on previously-held moral convictions.  It so clouds the sky that your lode-star reference points are obscured from view.

Drama participation has similar detrimental effects on the culture writ large.  We talked last week about something called “tribalism” which is the collective version of individual drama.  The stance of tribes is: “we’re right, you’re wrong, end of discussion.”  Tribes can be political parties, religious groupings, unions, management, cults, bowling leagues, parent-teacher associations, protest groups, fraternities, sororities, professional guilds, or virtually any affiliation of Homo sapiens.  You stay in the tribe’s good graces through unthinking adherence to the tribe’s cause and/or applauding the rightness of the tribal leader(s). And expect to pay a price if you don’t.

When tribal participation occurs, allegiance to tribe supersedes allegiance to truth.  People stop thinking for themselves and become manipulated into groupthink echo chambers in which Machiavellian leaders do their thinking for them.  Ideas become less important than winning because, after all, it’s the winners who now have the power to determine which ideas predominate.

This comes close to the Nietzschean-sounding declaration of the wicked Lord Voldemort to Harry Potter: “There is no good and evil, there is only power . . . and those too weak to seek it.”  “When winning is all that matters,” Daniel Krauthammer wrote recently, “questions of morality are superfluous.”

This might-makes-right way of thinking is obviously an old phenomenon and each era witnesses its latest renditions.  As the writer of Ecclesiastes said three thousand years ago, “There is no new thing under the sun.”

In 1939, a movie came out depicting the corrosive effects of tribalism on the political climate of Washington, D.C.  The movie was Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.  It was directed by Frank Capra and starred a fresh-faced Jimmy Stewart who comprised the role of Jefferson Smith.  A senator had died unexpectedly and the state’s corrupt political boss pressured the governor into appointing a new senator who would dutifully play his designated role in the tribal drama.  Acquiescence to the political boss was the only qualification required.

Of course, this involved lying, cover-ups, and back-room deals—things Jefferson Smith’s integrity would not allow. Jeff had naively assumed that the state’s other senator, Joseph Harrison Paine, would likewise be constrained by his integrity from doing such things.  It was a sad awakening for Jeff when he discovered that Senator Paine had indeed done such things–for years. He was entirely unnerved by the appalling discrepancy between the public Senator Paine and the one behind the mask. Here’s how he explained it when Jeff confronted the senator about his shady scheme involvement.

Now listen Jeff, please, and try to understand.  I know it’s tough to run head on into facts but as I said, this is a man’s world and you have to check your ideals outside the door like you do your rubbers.

Now, 30 years ago, I had your ideals. I was you.  I had to make the same decision you were asked to make today.  I made it.  I compromised. Yes, so that all those years I could sit in that Senate and serve the people in a thousand honest ways.

You’ve got to face facts, Jeff.  I’ve served our state well, haven’t I? We have the lowest unemployment and the highest federal grants.  But, well, I’ve had to compromise. I’ve had to play ball. You can’t count on people voting.  Half the time, they don’t vote anyway.  That’s how states and empires have been built since time began.  Don’t you understand?

Well, Jeff, you can take my word for it, that’s how things are.  Now, I’ve told you all this because I’ve grown very fond of you.

I’d like to point out several glaring incongruencies in Senator Paine’s despicable rationalization.

First, he was saying he had to lie in order to serve honestly. Honest service required dishonest methods.

Second, the higher good—assisting the people of his state—was served by low-life activities.

Third, appearances—Senator Paine was widely referred to in his state as The Silver Knight—were more important than reality.

Fourth, his repeated use of the word “facts.” The not-so-subtle subtext was, “these hard facts are more reality-based than your lofty, child-like ideals.”

Fifth, his supposedly noble motivation of telling Jeff these things for his own good.  Of course, Jeff’s subsequent refusal to acquiesce revealed Senator Paine’s true character—that of a vicious mortal enemy bent on Jeff’s complete and utter destruction.

And sixth, the elevation of power over truth.  Lord Voldemort would’ve been proud.

As Jeff listened to this clap trap, he stood there dumbfounded, stumped for words.  Because, in those situations, you’re never quite sure what to say.  How do you discuss ideals with a man who justifies checking those ideals at the door?  How do you talk principles when the person rationalizes the discarding of those principles to serve a supposed higher good?  In actuality, the only “good” being served was the preserving of Senator Paine’s image and power. How do you reason with a man who’s renounced the use of reason?  There just weren’t words.

And let me point out something else that will be the focus of a future letter. When Jeff first came into Senator Paine’s office, he asked the secretary if Senator Paine was in.  She said, “Senator Paine is out of town.”  He wasn’t. She lied.  Corrupt leaders corrupt their followers.  Like malignancies metastasizing in other organs, tribal followers eventually take on the unsavory characteristics of the ones they follow.  We become like whom we worship.

2 replies
  1. Pam Smith
    Pam Smith says:

    It’s hard not to become like the people one chooses to interact with. (As in, “When you lie down with dogs, you get fleas.”) When faced with a situation of tribal loyalty “my way or the highway,” it’s best to not engage with folks who insist on those kinds of rules. How not to engage, and who not to engage with can become problematical. What are admirable ways of disempowering corrupt people and systems which have power over us? When does not engaging become not action enough? How does one speak truth to power which does not value truth?

    • Alan Godwin
      Alan Godwin says:

      All very good questions that deserve good answers that would take longer than we have here to address. But those are the very questions that get raised when people find themselves in these situations. There are no one-size-fits-all answers because each situation has its own particular variables that must be taken into consideration. But the basic idea is to not play into the drama.

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